Moms, it’s time to be selfish.
If that statement makes you uncomfortable, don’t worry it’s not just you. Self-interested behavior contradicts the cultural narrative surrounding motherhood in almost every part of the world. How can you think about being selfish as a mother? The two words don’t even belong in the same sentence!
We are raised to be kind, courteous, helpful, and above all giving, and while none of these traits are wrong, the pivotal opportunity for growth and positive change is in recognizing when you’ve slid too far out of balance. Most women don’t recalibrate and if it goes on for too long, you can lose yourself in the process.
As a new mom, I fell into that category, and I didn’t even realize it was happening. It was only when I became so unhappy with the amount of stress I was experiencing, that I knew I needed to make a change. And what saved me was becoming aware of and receptive to the still small voice within. It was this voice that had contained the answers all along: in order to be happy and thrive as a mother, I needed to make self-care, mindfulness, and gratitude an integral part of my daily routine. The concept of freedom from stress and overwhelm built on the premise “selfishness” seemed to contradict every maternal instinct I had. And yet, it was actually what I needed most.
Throughout my pregnancy, I intellectually understood that caring for a new baby was going to be difficult (the lack of sleep, the worry, the constant diaper changes, the execution of appropriate sleeping and feeding schedules), but I felt that I was young, resilient, and could handle anything motherhood entailed. As is often the case, I was woefully underprepared for the reality and demands that motherhood presented. In those first few weeks after my son, Nash, was born, I ran on pure adrenaline. Nothing could hinder me from being the very best mother I could be, and naturally (or so I thought) no one knew my baby like I did so I never left him with anyone to take a break. I had fallen into the habit of neglecting my well-being under the guise of being a “good mother”. I was in so deep, I didn’t even realize that it was happening until one fateful night when I couldn’t ignore it any longer.
One evening, about six weeks in, I was bathing Nash as part of our nightly routine. I looked down at him and felt an overwhelming sense of fear and dread envelop me.
These questions raced through my mind:
Is this fearful existence going to be my life?
Am I always going to be worried, tired, and scared that something could befall him?
Is the person I was before having a child gone forever?
I was mourning the death of the person I was before becoming a mother, and simultaneously horrified by the stressed-out, constantly exhausted version of myself I was witnessing. The realization of the dramatic shift of my life circumstances (that had seemingly happened with no real warning) filled me with further dread and I started to cry. I felt despondent, lost, and in way over my head.
But as this perfect child looked up at me with his shining cerulean eyes, I heard my own mother’s words speak through. I remembered her saying to me as a child, that if she didn’t carve out some time for herself, whether it was reading, listening to music, or going out for a run, she just wasn’t herself. To give you some background, my mom was a Marine Corps Colonel’s wife, raising four closely-aged children all over the country, and in the case of one deployment, Okinawa, Japan. I knew she inherently understood and embodied adaptability to stress and change. I couldn’t believe that I had forgotten her mantra, her essential nature, until that moment of clarity and awakening on the bathroom floor.
Of course I needed to take care of myself if I ever hoped to be of any use to anyone else. Just the realization of that fact stilled the relentless dread swimming incessant circles in my belly. This awareness had two distinct and immediate effects: first, it helped me feel better, and second, it gave me hope for my future. Before I drifted off to sleep that night, I resolved to make a powerful change in my life. I decided that the very next day I would go for a run and begin the practice of taking meaningful time for myself every single day.
The next day arrived, I got dressed in my workout gear, slipped on my running shoes, and placed Nash in my husband’s arms so that I could go for a short run around the neighborhood. But as my hand turned the doorknob to leave, I suddenly felt guilty. It was only supposed to be a short run, but at that moment, I felt like I was abandoning my baby and that he would despair in my absence.
Maybe it is because we were physically connected for almost a year through the pregnancy and still deeply connected because I was breastfeeding, but whatever the reason, it was unlike anything I had ever felt before. The gravitational pull to drop everything and simply be with him was like an undertow ripping away all of my plans for balanced motherhood. Luckily, the sheer intensity of the negative emotions from the night before convinced me to push on. There was no turning back. I swallowed the hard pill of guilt and willed myself out into the sunshine and onto the pavement.
Within five minutes of the run I was out of breath and feeling a little uncertain of my balance. My post-pregnancy body was new terrain. It felt awkward, sluggish, heavy. In spite of that, something else was happening too. Plodding along in the oppressive summer heat, I began to feel joyful. With every step, I was communing with the spirit of the woman I was before having a child. I was reconnecting to my true self, and it felt good. Even though I was tired from the lack of sleep and completely out of shape, at that moment, I was authentically myself, timeless and eternal. During those precious minutes in breath and motion, I wasn’t worried about soggy diapers, pumped milk levels, or the laundry. My attention was solely focused on where my foot would land on the next stride and the sensation of the warm breeze on my face. It was a divine moment of heart and mind coherence. I was free.
I finished the run and came back into the house a renewed person. I perceived my husband differently as he sat there holding Nash. I gazed at him with new and loving eyes. Later in the day, that sense of love and happiness was still there. A twenty-minute run in the summer heat had connected me to my essential nature beyond my role as a mother, and renewed my faith in myself and my abilities as a mom.
The next day I didn’t go for a run, but I sat on my bed and journaled everything that was going on in my life. What I thought would be a page or two turned into twenty pages. Everything that I had been either unaware I was feeling, or actively suppressing over the past few weeks and months came pouring out of my body, through the pen, and onto the page. The feeling of being truly witnessed and nurtured by myself was medicine for my soul.
Now firmly established in my mind as a valuable practice, my intention to make self-care a daily part of my routine was solidified. It wasn’t selfish, it was actually a practice benefiting everyone in my life. By taking care of myself I was the type of mom who could be present with her kids, who could be grounded and happy despite outside environmental stressors, one who was directly modeling self-love, boundaries, and self-respect for her children.
By the time my second son, DC, was born in 2015, my daily self-care practice was non-negotiable. It was like brushing my teeth. Life certainly wasn’t easy, but it didn’t make me feel constantly afraid, or as if I couldn’t handle it. As my world became clearer, more emotionally simplified, and less stressed, I realized that most moms were still operating in survival mode. They engaged in sporadic bouts of self-care, but not enough to assuage the stress, create space and invite a greater sense of meaning and purpose into their lives.
In 2017, with these realizations in mind, I began blogging about my transformation from martyr mom to a mother empowered. How self-care had become the key to my liberation from my own self-imposed prison. My blog posts were picked up by popular magazines, and the responses I began to receive from fellow moms encouraged me to keep writing and spreading this simple message that has become what the brilliant child author and poet, Mattie Stepanek, called a heart song. My heart song, the message I want to convey in these pages is simple: if you want to experience a full and happy life, you must take care of yourself first.
In 2019, I was honored to take this message to the TEDx stage in Colorado Springs. At the end of my speech, I shared that this message is not exclusive to motherhood, that anyone who is a caretaker or who works at a demanding job needs to remember to connect with and nurture themselves every day. Doing so promotes creativity at work, empathy, and an overall sense of well-being and calm. Put simply, self-care is an essential part of living well and one that can be easily incorporated into daily life once the practitioner decides that they are worth the effort.
So give yourself the intentional space necessary to live your best life, for you and for your beautiful family. May you experience the incredible, empowering, joyful, positive ripple effect of your decision to take this time for yourself today and every day, and in the process may you be filled with unexpected hope and optimism for your life.
Adapted from “Motherhood Unstressed: Daily Meditations on Motherhood, Self-Care, and the Art of Living a Life You Love” – Available HERE.